Nineteenth-century European explorers called Africa the “Dark Continent,” because to them it was vast and largely unknown. Today, Africa may still be dark, but for a very different reason — it is chronically short of electricity. Indeed, nocturnal satellite images show that, except for some parts of southern and northern Africa, it barely twinkles.
The UN has designated this year the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All. Its official launch in Africa this month will not “switch on” the continent in a flash — but it can help to jump-start global efforts toward that goal, thereby enhancing the lives and livelihoods of millions of people.
Attempts have been made before to electrify Africa, with mixed results, but this time can be different. Many countries are already testing the technologies and policies needed to bring energy to rural areas and growing cities. Innovative investment mechanisms, and sharply falling manufacturing and installation costs of renewable energy technologies, including wind, advanced biomass and solar power, are essential to unlocking the continent’s potential.
In Kenya, new drilling techniques are tapping the country’s geothermal energy resources, adding hundreds of megawatts of generating capacity in recent years. Kenya is also about to begin construction of sub-Saharan Africa’s largest wind farm.
In Egypt, investment in renewable energy rose by US$800 million, to US$1.3 billion, in 2010, owing to a solar thermal project in KomOmbo and a 220 megawatt onshore wind farm in the Gulf of Zayt.
In Morocco, the provision of solar photovoltaic kits to isolated villages has helped to raise access rates to electricity in rural areas from less than 15 percent in 1990 to more than 97 percent in 2009. The country has been chosen as the first location to develop a 500 megawatt concentrated solar plant as part of the Desertec Industrial Initiative.
Instead of waiting for a grid to come to a town or village, renewable energies can be swiftly deployed in remote areas. Distributed generation using renewable energy can also help to reduce the risk of massive power outages and the resulting reliance on expensive diesel power, which currently can cost up to 5 percent of a country’s annual GDP — a problem that affects 30 of the 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
Innovative schemes are underway.
In parts of Africa, for example, mobile phone companies have begun piloting ways to provide customers access to solar energy. Electricity is supplied on a pay-as-you-go basis and tied to phone bills, unlocking market opportunities for isolated farmers.
However, more is needed. Africa is endowed with vast untapped renewable energy resources that can provide electricity for all at an affordable cost. The potential of wind power alone is more than 1,000 gigawatts, or more than five times the continent’s current total installed generating capacity. The potential output of solar energy is 10 times higher, in excess of 10,000 gigawatts, while only 5 percent of the region’s estimated hydropower resources have so far been exploited.
In parts of Africa, sustainably developed biomass could provide fuels to assist in meeting growing demand for transportation.
With Africa having yet to build nearly two-thirds of the additional capacity that it will need by 2030, the continent faces a unique opportunity to benefit from recent advances and cost reductions in renewable power-generation technologies, thereby leapfrogging the energy path taken by industrialized countries.